" Tói phiên ai?" Phan Phan, the Vietnamese woman massaging your legs mutters under her breath.
You can barely hear her, but her coworker catches the remark from across the room and responds, "Tói phiên Lihn."
"Are they talking about me?" you wonder, pretending to concentrate on the August issue of Vogue. "Maybe I should have shaved my legs."
If you’ve been in an Asian-owned nail salon or seen the "Seinfeld" episode in which Elaine suspects her Korean manicurist is making snide comments about her, you’re familiar with this scene.
But the mystique of the Asian-owned salon is more about our own insecurities than it is about the hardworking immigrants who toil at our hands and feet, buffing away the debris left by desert living. These men and women create masterpieces on the surface of a nail. Without them, how could we wear sandals year-round? Or afford to pamper ourselves every couple of weeks?
Language barriers and cultural differences can keep them strangers, even as they perform something as intimate as a pedicure. You may wonder: What is her real name? Does she like her job? What’s her life like outside of the salon? Does she make good money? Is she treated well?
Toan and Trang Ngo (pronounced "no"), owners of Valley Nails & Spa on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, came from Vietnam to this country independent of each other — Toan in 1979 at 3 and Trang seven years ago. Known as Tony and Tracy to their clients, they met in San Diego and were married shortly thereafter.
"I was young when I came here," said Tony, 33. "It was a culture shock. The language was pretty hard. But the hardest thing was knowing the difference between the men’s and ladies room."
Like many of their compatriots, the Ngos went into the nail business. Trade magazines estimate that 40 percent of Asianowned nail salons nationwide are owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants.
About 13,000 Vietnamese live in Arizona, according to Census 2000. Tradition guides many of them to work in the ubiquitous strip mall nail salons with generic names like XO Nails or Nails 2 Be.
"It’s something they’re comfortable with," said Phan (pronounced "fawn"), a 26-year-old Valley Nails & Spa nail technician who left Vietnam at the age of 3 and grew up in Denver. "You can’t spread out because you’re afraid to. It’s our culture, too. In Vietnam, if your dad is supposed to be a farmer, you grow up to be a farmer."
If VNS were a sitcom, Phan would be its star. She works 35 hours a week, and makes about 60 percent commission plus tips (the average is $5 for a pedicure and $3 for a manicure). When she’s not at home with her husband and daughters Asya, 5, and Kenya, 2, or putting in new tiles at her four-bedroom home in Chandler, Phan takes prerequisite courses at Mesa Community College. She plans to transfer to Northern Arizona University and study dental hygiene.
One of her favorite classes is Psychology 101, which comes in handy at a nail salon. Phan believes nail polish color reveals a lot about a person’s personality. Tidy people ask for a French pedicure. Fire engine red means you’re conservative. If you get pink, you’re girly. And if you go for neutrals, you’re boring.
Phan and her co-stars — Tony, Tracy, Jenny Lee, Kim Tran, Lihn Tstha — have a chemistry that inspires a loyal following. Because most customers feel comfortable with a female nail technician doing the pedicure, Tony, the only man working at the salon, does acrylic nails.
Regulars stop at Starbucks for their favorite coffee drink and then come in to gossip and get their nails done. Some customers have moved to other parts of the Valley, but they keep coming back.
"It’s worth the drive to get it done right," said 32-year-old Chandler resident Michele Zieger, who came to VNS on the recommendation of a co-worker.
Not all Asian-owned salons work like assembly lines. At VNS, a pedicure lasts 40 to 50 minutes, while a manicure takes 30. A pedicure costs $25 and a manicure $12. The larger the tip, the more likely you’ll get an extra five minutes on the massage.
The clean, brightly lighted VNS inspires comfort. The walls are sponge-painted yellow, and large, leafy plants occupy every corner. There are four massage chairs for pedicures and eight manicure stations. Waiting customers leaf through Vogue, Elle, Glamour and Time. There’s a bonsai tree along the back wall and bamboo in a decorated green vase for luck, but Phan says that’s really a Chinese custom.
Despite places like VNS, Asian-owned nail salons are still plagued by stereotypes — cheaper because they cut corners and risk their customers’ health to make a profit. Who hasn’t seen a local news channel bust down the doors of a discount salon to expose malfeasance?
"There’s a grain of truth somewhere," said Phan, whose husband works in a salon down the street. "But just because one branch is bad doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, so is the whole tree. The problem is most people who do nails can’t speak English so they can’t defend themselves."
Tired of her soapbox, Phan stops to examine the deep red nail polish she’s applying to Mesa resident Pat Kobel’s feet. She notices Tony pass by and without hesitating says, "After we close, we put on Britney Spears and dance, but you don’t want to see (Tony) dance."
But Tony is too busy to notice. Disappointed, Phan returns to Kobel’s feet.
"I just like to have fun with the customers," Phan said. "You go to so many places and it’s, ‘Oh, you want a pedicure? What color?’ We need to pump things up. I don’t like to work in a boring environment."